Published in the Friday Times, July 9th issue
Good advice for hard times…
The words on the back of rickshaws are magical, in Punjabi they sound ribald, but once translated into Urdu or English, they instantly attain a deeper gravity. For instance, “Ajj aggay waikh, pichaay na waikh” (don’t look back, look ahead today) and when times get hard, “Lag gai te Rozi, na lagi te Roza”, (If I make money, I’ll feast, if not I’ll fast).
The point is not to sugarcoat adversity, but be sane and simple about it. On the desi front, the best advice on offer does not come from my great grandmother, from a legendary poet, or from a charismatic leader of yore, but from the rickshaw driver. He is a cultural phenomenon in his own right and wants to tell you, “Hosh Ker Kherghosh” (Get a grip, Rabbit!).
On the issue of no-nonsense common sense, the British take the cake. The British are excellent at mincing their words (stiff upper lip and all that) with an inability to match the touch-feely, self-help, motivational sloganeering of America. Thus when Brits find themselves in a tight spot, like the occasional World War, they resort to more restrained and formal modes of address as in
Winston Churchill stoutly saying;“I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem much use being anything else.”
In 1939 on the eve of war, the British government’s Ministry of Information produced three posters, with simple reassuring instructions on how to conduct life during war time. They each said blatantly “Your Freedom is in Peril”; reassuringly “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory”; and nonchalantly “Keep Calm and Carry On”; all topped with the comforting seal of King George VI’s crown.
The last poster entered popular culture with the BBC calling it the greatest motivational poster of all time. The two and a half million posters with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message would only have seen the light of day if Germany had invaded Britain. As it was, the need never arose and they were pulped, much to the delight of the Ministry of Information, except that a box went missing and was discovered in 2008 in a house in Northumbria. The discoverers, Mr and Mrs Manley, put the poster up in their bookshop and it became a national treasure.There were thousands of other propaganda posters at the time, each more colorful than the next from Russia, Germany, USA, China and Vietnam that are now looked at as works of art, but none with the gripping advice of the British posters.
The American warning against unguarded talk that may give useful information to enemy spies also became part of popular culture (including music). The “Loose lips might sink ships,” messages were among the propaganda posters against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan along with “Be sensible, use your head.”
Another from Soviet Russia caught my attention and proclaimed succinctly “Be on Guard”. Of course, the slogan was about paranoia against saboteurs spoiling the “Soviet paradise” and was used as a cover for indiscriminate persecution (the Party had warned you, now if you saw someone being arrested you would knew why). Yet the message of the poster survives with its brief double edged warning.
Today in a global recession and a disaster a day, anticipating when the next building will explode is a hard way to spend the afternoon. Thus the search for wisdom, that doesn’t attempt to be too intellectual or overbearing (like the evening news).
About a decade ago, Hugh McLoad started drawing cartoons at the back of business cards and sold them. The idea was attractive and the cartoons were quite funny, yet constituted but a few scribbles. Eventually, McLoad ended up with a flourishing career in art, wrote a bestselling book touting advice on “how to make it” and has his own cult following.
The cover of the book starts off with minimal advice on how to handle your business (any business): “Ignore Everybody”, the first key to creativity. His tips include, “The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours” and “Put the hours in”.
My personal favourite has been, “The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.” The Pakistan Muslim League (of one variety or another) has had its fair share of slogans, propaganda (and props), against other parties in national politics, but no original words of wisdom have made it to this page. I do however have the urge to get the Quaid’s common and forgotten “Kaam kaam aur bus kaam” (Work, work and only work) printed on bright green paper, and pasted all over the city.